Applications of CNC machining
Summary: CNC machining has many uses across many industries. This article looks at how and where CNC machining is used in the professional world, from aerospace to medicine, from prototyping to production.
CNC machining is a versatile and cost-effective manufacturing process compatible with a huge range of materials. As such, it is used across a diverse array of industries, for a variety of applications, and can be used in different ways: as a direct manufacturing process, an indirect manufacturing process or in conjunction with other processes.
As with any manufacturing process, the unique advantages of CNC machining inform the kind of applications for which it can be used. However, the benefits of CNC (accuracy, turnaround times, material quality) are desirable in virtually any industry, for many parts and products. And since CNC can process almost any material — metal, plastic and beyond — its applications are near limitless.
From aerospace to leisure, and from direct part production to rapid tooling, this article looks at how and where CNC machining is most frequently used.
Industries that use CNC machining
CNC machining is not limited to any single sector. Machining is used virtually everywhere, helping to create everything from aircraft parts to surgical tools. Applications of CNC machining can, therefore, be categorized into different industries.
The aerospace industry has a long shared history with CNC machining. Metal aircraft components can be machined to a high level of precision, which is essential for safety-critical applications, and the range of engineering metals compatible with CNC provides aerospace engineers with plenty of options.
Machinable aerospace components include engine mounts, fuel flow components, landing gear components, and fuel access panels.
The automotive industry regularly uses CNC machining for both prototyping and production. Extruded metal can be machined into cylinder blocks, gear boxes, valves, axels, and various other components, while plastic can be machined into components like dashboard panels and gas gauges.
CNC is also useful for creating one-off custom automotive parts and even replacement parts since turnaround times are fast and there is no minimum required part quantity.
CNC machining is widely used for the prototyping and production of consumer electronics such as laptops and smartphones. The chassis of an Apple Macbook, for example, is CNC machined from extruded aluminum and then anodized.
In the electronics industry, machining is used to create PCBs, housings, jigs, fixtures and other components.
The military sector frequently turns to CNC machining for the prototyping and production of rugged and reliable parts that will withstand wear and tear with minimal upkeep.
Many of these parts overlap with other industries such as aerospace and electronics, though the ability of CNC machines to provide on-demand replacement parts and upgraded components is particularly useful in an industry that demands constant innovation and security.
Since CNC machining can be used on various medically safe materials, and since the process is suited to one-off custom parts, it has many applications in the medical industry. The tight tolerances afforded by CNC machining are essential to the high performance of machined medical components.
CNC machinable medical parts include surgical instruments, electronic enclosures, orthotics, and implants.
Oil & gas
Another industry in which tight tolerances are required for safety-critical applications, the oil and gas sector uses CNC machining for precise, reliable parts such as pistons, cylinders, rods, pins, and valves.
These parts are often used in pipelines or refineries and may be required in smaller quantities to fit specific quantities. The oil and gas industry often requires corrosion-resistant machinable metals like Aluminum 5052.
Manufacturing possibilities of CNC machining
Applications of CNC machining can be categorized not just by industry, but by how the CNC machine is used.
CNC machines have fast turnarounds because they are highly autonomous. Once a digital design is complete, it can be sent to the CNC machine and fabricated in a short space of time. This makes CNC machining highly useful for prototyping — regardless of whether the final part will be made using CNC machining or another process like metal casting.
Machined prototypes can be more costly than 3D printed prototypes, but can often be made to a higher standard and may more closely resemble the end-use part.
CNC machining is precise enough to create high-quality components for end-use applications, and its material versatility allows for the fabrication of a huge variety of parts.
Overall, CNC machining is a cost-effective manufacturing process for many projects, regardless of size or scope, and all of the aforementioned industries use the manufacturing process to create usable final parts.
In addition to being an excellent direct manufacturing process, CNC machining can be used as an indirect manufacturing process to aid processes like injection molding.
Because it is possible to machine various tool steels and robust aluminum, CNC machining can be used to create metal molds and tooling, which can then be filled with other materials such as molten plastic to create products in large quantities.
CNC machining does not have to be used independently of another manufacturing process. Combining it with other processes like 3D printing or metal casting can lead to superior parts and products.
It is possible, for example, to CNC machine features such as holes and threads in a printed or cast part.